History of Foosball: A Brief Lesson On Table Soccer

Foosball, or table soccer as it is known in some parts of the world, has somewhat of a disputed history. The name is an Americanized version of the German word “fussball”, which translates as “football.” So, you’d think the the origin of the name means that the game was invented in Germany, right? You’d be wrong.

Do We Even Know Who Invented It?

A British fellow by the name Harold Searles Thornton is credited with the game’s creation because he was issued the first patent for it. However, there are claims that he wasn’t actually the inventor.

During the 1880s – 1890s, many say that the game of foosball seemed to spring up across Europe as a parlor game.

Belgian magazine Le Soir Illustre claimed in their November 1979 issue (No. 2471 on page 26) that the French inventor Lucien Rosengart (1880 – 1976) came up with the game of table soccer in the 1930s when he was looking for things to keep his grandchildren entertained during the cold winter months. He called the game “babyfoot” instead of foosball. Employed at the Citroen automobile factory, Rosengart is credited with inventing the minicar, front-wheel drive, and the seat belt, among other things.

Spain also wants the credit for the game, claiming that Alexandre de Finesterre invented it during a fit of boredom while in the hospital for injuries from the Spanish Civil War. He supposedly patented it in 1937, but the paperwork was lost.

The First Official Claim

The truth is that it doesn’t matter who actually invented the game, because on November 1, 1923 the first official claim to inventing the game was recognized. That is the date that the patent for the foosball table was accepted by the UK patent office (UK patent no. 205,991). And that patent was filed by Harold Searles Thornton. That original patent application was dated October 14, 1921 and that application was not officially accepted until November 1, 1923. This legal document is why Thornton gets all the credit, because he has the first official claim to the table game.

It is said that Harold Searles Thornton got the idea for the game from a box of matches, which sounds so crazy that it must be true. Supposedly seeing the matches on top of the box gave him the ideas for what it now the foosball table rods, and thus the game of table soccer was born.

Foosball Spreads Across The Atlantic & The World

And after Harold Searles Thornton’s uncle, Louis P. Thornton, visited him from the United States, he went on to patent the game in the United States in 1927 (United States Patent Office No. 1,615,491). Sadly, poor Louis has little success with table soccer in the U.S. and he actually let the patent expire! And that is likely why there is so much uncertainty in regards to the history of the game here in the U.S.

Fast forward a few decades and the game of foosball is rapidly spreading across the world.

The Belgians were responsible for the very first league in the 1950s. And by 1976, the world saw the formation of the European Table Soccer Union. It was take decades more before it re-emerged in the United States, thanks to soldier Lawrence Patterson, who experienced the game while stationed in Germany in the 1960s.

It was 1962 when Patterson got his first Bavarian-made table into the U.S. and he trademarked the term “foosball” in both the U.S. and Canada.

In 1970, the first American-made foosball table was created by Bob Hayes and Bob Furr. These two were responsible for the game becoming a national phenomenon during the 1970s. Even Sports Illustrated was covering tournaments – that’s how popular the game was at the time.

Meanwhile, Patterson was focused on coin-operated tables, and they became wildly popular in the U.S. in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s due to the popularity of arcades at the time. At it’s height in popularity, it was estimated that a whopping 1.9 million people were playing a game of foosball in the United States alone.

But that heyday of foosball popularity was not going to last in the United States.

In the 1980s, Pac-Man and the rise of video games contributed to the demise of table soccer’s popularity in America. But, it’s popularity has held strong in other parts of the world.

In 2002, the International Table Soccer Federation (ITSF) was officially established. Based in France, this non-profit organization was established to promote the game around the world. They’re also responsible for the rules of the game (including official table specifications), organizing competitions, bringing the game to less privileged countries, and generally just promoting it and defending it around the world.

But not to worry, it began slowly making a comeback and the U.S. joined the International Table Soccer Federation back in 2003. However, it has still not reached the same level of popularity as it had in the 1970s.

For more on foosball’s history, check outThe Complete Book Of Foosball by by Johnny Rafols (writing as Johnny Lott) and Kathy Brainard (1980, Contemparary Books, Inc.).